Suddenly, all of the Washington Capitals' streaks are negative. The Buffalo Sabres whipped the Capitals, 4-2, at Capital Centre last night and extended Washington's run of home-ice defeats to four, with the overall winless string reaching five.
It was almost a repeat of Friday's game in Buffalo, with the Sabres hanging onto a 3-2 lead by keeping the puck in Washington ice through most of the third period. This time, they embellished things a bit on Tony McKegney's conversion of a two-on-one break with 1 1/2 minutes to play.
Phil Housley, the 18-year-old wunderkind from Minnesota, produced the winning score on a breakaway late in the second period. Housley jumped off the bench, took Gilles Hamel's pass as he skated down the left wing and flipped a backhander under the crossbar after deking goalie Al Jensen.
It was not until the last five minutes of the game that Washington threatened to tie it. First Gaetan Duchesne, then Ken Houston had opportunities, but in each case goalie Bob Sauve was able to stop the shot.
"Buffalo was very disciplined and we didn't have a lot of chances," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "They shut us down pretty well. In the two games it's come down to mistakes. When we get the breaks, we don't get off decent shots. When we make mistakes, they finish the play."
"That's the best period we've played all year," said Buffalo Coach Scotty Bowman of the final 20 minutes. "We've played 135 periods this year and that's the best, as far as skating, shutting down, intensity and good passing. I think our bench made a big difference, too. We stuck with four lines and playing back to back like that, it paid off."
The Capitals dressed 13 forwards and five defensemen, with backliner Randy Holt consigned to the stands on his 30th birthday. Greg Theberge and Chris Valentine were reserved almost exclusively for power plays, so most of the way the Capitals were playing with three lines and two defense combinations. Against the swift Sabres, they obviously became weary.
Jensen made some remarkable saves in the final period to keep Washington close. He stopped three breakaways, two by Mike Foligno and one by Gil Perreault, after defensive mistakes by the Capitals. Finally, however, he was beaten by Perreault's perfectly timed pass to McKegney with only Duchesne back.
Both Washington goals were scored in four-on-three situations, against the second-best penalty-killing unit in the NHL.
The Capitals scored first, just as they had in Buffalo, when Bobby Carpenter made an exceptional play to keep the puck in the Buffalo zone and shoved the puck to Theberge, who beat Sauve from 50 feet.
Foligno matched it midway through the first period, using a quick release from the right wing circle to beat a backpedaling Jensen in the far corner.
Hannu Virta, a 19-year-old Finn, exploited countryman Timo Blomqvist to send the Sabres in front early in the second period. Virta intercepted Blomqvist's pass inside the Washington blueline, put a classy inside fake on Blomqvist and then beat Jensen on the glove side.
"Virta is a bit ahead of the rest of the kids," said Bowman, who never has lost to the Capitals as coach of Montreal and Buffalo. "He had the benefit of playing against men last year with a first-place team in Finland, where (Scott) Stevens played only one year of junior and Housley just played high school hockey."
Washington caught up when specialist Valentine, cutting in from the right wing boards, put a perfect pass on Dennis Maruk's stick just outside the crease. Maruk netted his 24th goal at 7:08 on the Capitals' first shot of the second period.
At that point, the Capitals mounted their biggest surge of the night. However, Sauve, unbeaten in 12 appearances against Washington, had the necessary answers.
Sauve foiled an attempted jam from behind by Stevens, stopped Glen Currie on a breakaway after Rod Langway picked off a Housley pass and blocked a weak shot by Bengt Gustafsson after another Housley giveaway.
Housley atoned for the giveaways with his breakaway goal and made enough other good moves to earn a standoff in his weekend head-to-head battle with Stevens. Those two are considered the best rookie defensemen in the NHL, although Virta obviously belongs in the same company.
Buffalo has recorded eight victories and a tie in its last nine visits to Capital Centre and has lost to Washington only twice in 38 meetings, with five games tied.